Creating a sustainable fishery: the Jonah crab story

Published on
March 6, 2016

Flaky, moist and flavorful, the Jonah crab has long been a favorite of customers of Delhaize America, the owner of supermarket chains Hannaford and Food Lion.

But when the company updated its sustainability guidelines in 2012, it discovered the Jonah crab (Cancer borealis) didn’t meet its new standards. That set the company and its representative, Kim Taylor, on a mission to figure out why. And it eventually led to the announcement at Seafood Expo North America on Sunday, 6 March, that after years of hard work, a fishery management plan for the Jonah crab will launch June 1, 2016.

“The fishery was in our backyard, and we didn’t want to turn our backs on it. We didn’t want to let our community down,” Taylor said of Delhaize America’s involvement in the creation of the FIP. “We knew if we didn’t help to get this done, it might not have gotten accomplished.”

Back in 2012, Taylor got in touch with Jen Levin, the sustainable seafood program manager at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, who coordinated the eventual formation of a fishery improvement project work group. Levin brought other major players in the Jonah crab trade on board, including Bryan Holden, the managing partner of Cape Seafood and Luke’s Lobster – a major seller of Jonah crab in its popular crab rolls. Coincidentally, Holden’s father had been one of the first fishers in Maine to begin to catch and sell Jonah crab, so the project had sentimental as well as economic value to Holden.

“The Jonah crab is a high-end product, but it’s not something you see on a lot of menus. If we had enough of it, we would use it exclusively year-round,” Holden said. “But the fishery was being held back by the lack of a management plan, which meant it couldn’t scientifically be called sustainable.”

Mostly caught far offshore in New England, primarily in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Jonah crab was caught mainly as bycatch until recently, when it began getting more popular. In 2011, the most recent year from which data is available, 4,089 metric tons of Jonah crab with a total ex-vessel value of USD 5.5 million (EUR 5 million) was landed in New England, according to NMFS data.

Sam Wilding, a senior fisheries scientist with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, said the biggest problems it found with the fishery in its initial study in 2014 were that there had never been a stock assessment performed and there was no fishery management plan in place. It issued a red “Avoid” rating to the fishery – reluctantly, Wilding said.

“We just didn’t have enough information to give it a better rating,” Wilding said.

By that time, however, the FIP work group, composed of seafood processors, commercial fishermen, management entities and scientists, had already developed management measures to prevent including size limits, protection of females and requirements for licensing and trap limits.

The FIP work group included Bristol Seafood, Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association, Delhaize America, Rhode Island Lobstermen’s Association, M.F. Foley Company, Cape Seafood LLC, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, commercial fisherman David Spencer, ASMFC member Steve Train, Rick Wahle with the University of Maine, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, and The Atlantic Red Crab Company, and was facilitated by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

In May 2014, after hearing from the work group, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) voted unanimously in favor of the development of a fishery management plan and stock assessment for Jonah crab. And in August 2015, the commission approved the fishery management plan, including every measure the work group had advocated. The plan will go into effect up and down the east coast of the United States on 1 June, 2016.

It’s a major victory for all involved, said Holden, who was part of the work group, representing Luke’s Lobster and Cape Seafood.

“We always knew the Jonah crab was a sustainable fishery but the lack of a management plan is our way to prove that,” he said.

Wilding, who did not play a role in the work group or the development of the FIP, said he expected Seafood Watch to improve its rating of the Jonah crab as soon as the plan goes into effect.

“The management plan being put in place is a great start. It’s not going to be perfect, but we don’t and couldn’t expect it to be. But I’m so impressed with the effectiveness of the work group and how quickly they’ve managed to get what looks like a highly effective management plan implemented in a relatively short time,” he said. “It’s a great success story.”

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